New Anchoring tips for the Channel Islands

Drag Queen LogoDrag Queen – the best anchoring aid since GPS

We anchor almost every time we sail and that adds up to more than 100 times a year. We’ve studied the techniques very carefully and are fairly expert, yet every night at anchor both the Bosun and I check our position, the anchor and snubber and we do it half a dozen times each. Part of that is that we’re old men and tend to wander around in the night. (I’m writing this at 0330 and there’s no good reason for that. Just old.)

Most books that address anchoring tell you to take bearings and calculate your position, then draw the circle representing the length of rode and your swing.

Sancerre rides to anchor at Santa Cruz Island
Sancerre rides to anchor at Santa Cruz Island

If you’ve anchored at the Channel Islands, you know that you can’t get a visual fix, it’s just too damned dark and there are satisfactory lights only in Smugglers and Yellowbanks (Anacapa Light and Platform Gail). So you’re left with taking a look around, estimating how far you are from other boats and listening to the surf for clues about how close you are to the shore.

That’s all standard and not all that accurate or reassuring. What does reassure us is our GPS. We set the track to 5 sec and can see what the trend is. We’ve spent a couple of nights in Yellowbanks with winds gusting over 50 knots and stood anchor watch at the nav table watching our track. BTW – at 50 knots with no riding sail, our track was a semi-circle. We also set the anchor alarm.

Anchor alarm drawbacks

Our anchor alarm works fine but it isn’t as loud as Tom’s (my son’s) snoring. If we’re awake, it’s OK. If not, the wind is much more likely to wake us than the  puny alarm.

Then there’s the “where are we”  issue. We hit the GPS alarm button as we drop the anchor. I presume that marks the spot where the GPS antenna is, but that is 45.2 feet from the anchor even before we lower it.

Drag Queen is a great addition

Drag Queen is a free phone app and is the best anchoring trick we’veDrag Queen screen shot picked up since we switched to all-chain rode.

We take it forward when we’re about to drop the hook, hit the set button when the 50 foot marker goes by and then put it away.

Once the anchor is set, we get the phone out, add the length of the rode to the distance from the bow plus 10% and enter that in the Distance Alarm field.

With bow and stern hook set, we mark the position wherever the phone is going to spend  the night, usually the nav table and set the distance at 70 feet or so, depending on how close other boats and obstructions are and how tightly we snubbed the rodes.

We have used the default for Alarm Delay – 30 seconds, and set 50 feet for GPS Alarm Accuracy.

Those are pretty tight parameters and we get the occasional false positive. We will probably start setting the alarm delay to 45 seconds to reduce the false alarm rate.

The Alarm

The alarm is startling. It’s loud and raucous. It’s perfect. If you want more volume, hook it up to your FM radio or a Jambox. Doing those things will probably wake all your neighbors.

Does it work inside?

The publisher warns that GPS accuracy can be severely degraded if the phone doesn’t have a clear view of the sky. We set ours on the nav table which is near the companionway but with no direct view of the sky and have monitored the GPS accuracy. It rarely wanders above 33 feet on either my iPhone or the Bosun’s Android.

Other cool things

Since the app notes the location of the anchor, you can transfer the information to another device  such as an iPad or a second phone.

Plug it in, plug it in

Plug your phone into an external power source. Capt. Rob has installed USB plugs for us, but a cigarette lighter plug is almost as good.

The display will not dim when the app is activated and the phone is plugged in.

If you’ve got questions

e-mail Capt. Dan

See you on the water!

Wiley and crew new honor: proclaimed gemütlich

A gentle day in the Santa Barbara Channel
A gentle day in the Santa Barbara Channel

Summer is the best time of the year in our business for meeting folks from other parts of the world. Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Canadian tourists make for some of our best experiences.

I sailed this week with a family from Köln, Germany. Cologne is easier for the English tongue, but the family worked with me until I could handle the umlaut fairly respectably.  At least for one day.

They – mom, dad and a 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl – were a delight. Fortunately, they all spoke excellent English, which is good as my German is limited to being able to order a beer. (Bier, bitte?)

Here’s why I like to sail with Europeans: their kids are always interested in learning about sailing and about our area.  And they are  always excited about being on the boat.  And if they ever get bored, they never say so.

And why I like to sail with Germans, in particular: They don’t get seasick or do anything messy, they hang up their lifejackets more neatly than they found them and they are full of laughter and fun.

And particularly in particular, these Germans deemed the time, the place, the whole experience gemütlich.

Their explanation of the word went far beyond the dictionary’s “comfortable.”  Apparently the umlaut is loaded with expression that we just can’t apprehend with an English ear.

And another thing, when the parents translated technical sailing stuff that I was trying to pass on to their young son, well, I sounded much more intelligent and knowledgeable in German. I guess something was lost in the original.

If I ever have another boat, I think I’ll have to name her Gemütlich. Or, perhaps, Gemülichkeit, though a Mayday call would inevitably bring severe consternation to the Coast Guard with either one of those.


Shoaling in Channel Islands Harbor is severe

It’s official –

Today ‘s (26 June 2014) Local Notice to Mariners reports

“Shoaling has been reported in the northwest entrance to Channel Islands Harbor. The navigable depth has been reported as less than 10ft and the width from the break wall to the shoal has been reported as less than 90ft.

The northwest entrance is subject to rapid shoaling and should be should be avoided due to unknown depths. Mariners are requested to transit the area with caution and report any observed changes in shoaling
conditions to the Channel Islands Harbor Patrol on VHF-FM Chan. 16, 12, 73, or at 805-382-3000.”


Sailing the Channel Islands – Prisoners Harbor revisited

Prisoners harbor tricks and tacticsPrisoners Harbor chart 18729

Anchoring at Prisoners Harbor can be a bit tricky

I like Prisoners Harbor, but there are some things to think about on your way in

1. Most folks anchor on a single hook, but I’m going to stop that practice right now. I’ve been in there on the nicest of evenings (last Monday, in fact) and somewhere in the middle of the night the wind dies and I find myself drifting about and far too frequently end up with the swell on the beam. It’s not dangerous, but it’s not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

I may have to anchor away from the crowd and may be be exposed to a bit more wind and swell, but I’ll go to the east side of the pier if I have to and drop two hooks and get oriented into the NW swell. It’s worth the effort for a decent night’s snoozing.

Prisoner Harbor anchoring
This is our favorite spot to anchor. It’s about 100 yards NW of the buoy that has been returned to service but is not in this pic.

2. The mooring buoy is back. It’s where it was for years, about 75 yards NW of the pier. It’s still just for National Park Service boats and Island Packers.  BTW – the chart pictured is the latest available. We’ll send notice to the CG that an update is required.

3. Eel grass, still a pain in the ass. We tried anchor just south of the 5 fathom mark. Our very reliable Fortress anchor would not set. When I hauled it up, we had half an acre (OK, a small bouquet) of eel grass in the flukes. We moved to a spot 100 yards north of the mooring buoy (about the 3 3/4 fathom mark) and got a good set on the first try. No eel grass when we got underway.

4. Note the anchor symbol. If you actually try to anchor near there you’re liable to find yourself in 100 feet of water.


Record speeds on rip snortin’ romp to Anacapa

Record speeds

Apparently no one was interested in sailing yesterday, the seas near Channel Islands Harbor were empty.  Except for the Wiley crew.  And we were very interested by the winds, building seas and record speeds.

New friends

Vinnie and Patti on cruise to Anacapa Island
New sailing friends Patti and Vinnie

My new friends Patti and Vinnie were aboard for an anniversary celebration. Vinnie is a long-time sailor but hasn’t had many opportunities to sail in the past decade or so and was hoping for a challenging run, “rail buried, that’s what I want to see.”

Based on the forecast, that didn’t seem likely; but wishing will sometimes make it so and we headed out into about 12 knots of wind. That’s plenty for a fun day on Wiley, but there was more, as the advertisers say … much more.

We shot out to Anacapa in a bit over an hour and a half.

Vinnie hadn’t sailed in quite a while and was very eager to get his hands on the helm.  When the wind filled the sail passing the breakwater, a world-class smile arced across his face. You’d never have known he’d been away from the sport for any time as we shot out towards Gina, Vinnie in total control of the boat and Patti totally unconcerned about the weather or Vinnie’s lack of recent sailing experience.


We hove-to in the lee of Anacapa for a short break and then headed back, completing the run in 81 minutes. We were never under 7 knots and saw 20 minutes or so over 9.  Maneuvering, though not surfing, down the front of a big swell we hit 10.1. That’s a non-spinnaker record aboard Wiley.

We didn’t need to reef on the way out and being on a beam reach on the way back were able to keep full sail in play.

It was warm, bright and simply gorgeous. I think this day will live in all our memories.

Post season Santa Ana winds

Late Santa Ana winds — signal climate change.

Really, we don’t know … for sure. But all of us local sailors know that Santa Ana winds can be expected November through April. That would mean the ones we went through a few weeks ago should have been the last until Thanksgiving. But anyone looking at the forecast here in mid-May knows that there are more a-comin’

A few quick lessons on film

We set out for some advanced coastal cruising training the last week of April. The students wanted to do some night sailing and wanted to be trained in heavy weather tactics. As usual, we learned some lessons alongside our students.

A rude awakening in Forneys Cove

Getting into Forneys was far more challenging than usual. We had winds out of the west at 30+ which kicked the seas up to 10 feet or so. Fagan says stay out of Forneys in these conditions, but our alternative was a ride back to Smugglers, where we’d started the day. It was a four-day trip and this was day two. Forneys made some sense. So, we headed south from Fraser point, which protects Forneys from west wind and swell, trying to get around the Potato Patch. In retrospect, we should have gone a mile or so farther south. As it was, we turned downwind/downsea in some waves that were shoaling up in vicinity of 15′. Close interval, snarly as hell. Just ugly. Already reefed down, we’d decided to get the sails out of the way entirely  to avoid a probable gybe on the turn into the cove. And  under power, we were able to control our speed and avoid surfing. Nevertheless, we made a fairly spectacular entry into the cove. Expecting snotty conditions based on Fagan, we were surprised to be spit out into flat water – not glassy, but not particularly ruffled –  and winds of 10 knots. Had we caught the old sea pirate in an error? It was a new moon and we arrived at low tide. When the tide rose six feet or so around midnight, the swell came breaking over the reef. It wasn’t dangerous, but the rolling was fairly violent and sleep was hard to find.

Santa Ana pays a call

We’d spent quite a bit of time briefing the crew during the day on local weather phenomena, describing the early symptoms of Santa Ana: low humidity (dry decks), unusually high temperature, crystal-clear visibility, building chop. Maybe a hint of offshore wind. I was lying awake just after dawn when the crew made his weather report, ending with “The wind is light but shifting, and It feels like a hair dryer out there.” Everyone jumped to their stations and we were underway in about 10 minutes, which is a good trick with an anchor snubber rigged. The wind was pushing past 20 as we cleared the lee shore. It didn’t feel like an emergency, but if we’d waited another 10 or 20 minutes, it would have been. Somewhere around 40 knots of wind and Sancerre becomes reluctant to stay into the wind. Anchor retrieval becomes questionable. If it gets to around 50 knots, and we simply must get out, we’d tie a float to bitter end of  the anchor rode and jettison the whole thing for later retrieval. If we get caught in Alberts, Willows or another place that we’re likely to have both bow and stern hooks in place, the decision to leave one behind happens a lot quicker as you’re only 50 meters from the  cliff  face from the get-go.

 Scary stories

Fagan reports that he almost lost his boat in  Santa Ana winds  in Forneys when the wind whipped up to 45 knots. Another dock mate of ours reported that two urchin fishermen did lose their boats, scared their dogs and had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. Dogs included.

Night sail to Smugglers … almost

The night sail was uneventful. Actually, it was beautiful. A Carl Sagan kind of night. In the interests of training, we scheduled two hour watches so that everyone could have the thrill of going to bed tired, waking up a tad more  tired, standing watch and again and then staying up all day. The lesson, of course, is to manage sleep as closely as you manage your batteries, fuel and water. We sailed the coast in variable winds. Team B had 20 knots – give or take – and two lovely romps on a broad reach, while my Team A saw nothing but light and variable. Coming around Sandstone Point at the southeastern end of Santa Cruz, the wind picked up and warmed up. The visibility was unrestricted, the decks were dry …. and Smugglers became a very unattractive place to anchor. We headed east, hoping to get to Oxnard before the looming Santa Ana showed up. We didn’t make it. We shot by Cat Rock, supposedly a Santa Ana refuge, and headed to Potato Harbor in almost 50 knots of following wind. We were making 9 knots on a piece of main smaller than my Speedos. The wind was so strong that it created a venturi-like force that lifted the water in a powerful spray, creating an occasional rainbow. Potato was better than being in the open, but the wind was coming over the north cliff and pounding down into the harbor. There’s not a lot of room to swing in there, and we elected to try China Bay.

China Bay

China Bay has been cited as an eastwind refuge for more than 100 years, and we’ve never been disappointed when we hunkered down there. We were comfortably anchored, had enough food, water and fuel to hole up for several days, and that’s just want the forecast said we were likely to do. Not wanting to hear a Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan with our name following, we called Coast Guard Sector LA to head off an overdue report from our families. They called our homes, told them we were likely to be late, maybe a couple of days late, but that we were safe. As it turned out, the wind died at dusk, shifted to the west and we had another pleasant sail under an incredibly starry sky and arrived home only a few hours after our original schedule.

Capt. Dan’s Channel Islands Cruising Guide

New Blog

I’m pulling my blog into the main body of the website. If you’ve come

Capt. Dan and Tom at Johnson's Lee
My son Tom — no family resemblance there – Dawn and Bosun ventured back to Johnson’s Lee with me in early March

here from the old blog, please subscribe to this one as the old one will go away shortly. Click the green SUBSCRIBE button over there on the left. (If I were smarter about this web stuff, I’d have been able to import the old subscribers, but I don’t  know who you are.)

Channel Islands Cruising Guide

Anyhow, if you’ve been thinking the old Channel Islands Cruising Guide looks a little funky compared to the new website, I’d have to agree.  It’ll be long and slow, but we’re updating gradually with a new reliance on video. We’ve most recently updated  Johnson’s Lee.

Johnsons Lee, Santa Rosa Island

Even though Santa Rosa Island is now fully under the control of the National Park Service, there are still some places you must avoid. You no longer have to worry about getting shot, but you should still refer to the NPS website hiking restrictions & beach closures as certain beaches are closed from time-to-time to protect the snowy plover nesting sites as well as pinniped rookeries (seals, sea lions, elephant seal nurseries)


There are relatively few anchorages on Santa Rosa Island, and most of those visiting this island are drawn to Becher’s Bay NW anchorage, often not venturing beyond this large, well sheltered and popular anchorage. However, heading around East Point up the south west coast of the island to Johnson’s Lee is well worth the trip in the right conditions. However, this anchorage is untenable when the winds are out of the southeast or there is a short-period southern swell. Also, as mentioned above, strong winds out of the west can also make for a pretty unsettled night if you’re not equipped with a properly rigged riding sail.


Near Ford Point on the Way to Johnsons Lee
Near Ford Point on the Way to Johnsons Lee – the far point

The approach to Johnson’s Lee is fairly straight forward as it lies immediately NE of South Point (the southern most point of Santa Rosa Island). However, finding the “sweet spot” can be a bit of a challenge. Brian Fagan states in The Cruising Guide to Central and Southern California (revised 2002) “The buildings on the slopes are visible from a long distance. Steer for the pier immediately below them. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the sake of returning the island to its natural state), these buildings and the pier no longer exist and all traces of them have been eliminated. There is, however, some sort of storage shed that is visible for miles. The light on South Point looks like it should be a good landmark, but, don’t expect to see this light when approaching from the south east. While it should be visible when approaching from San Miguel Island, spotting may also be a little difficult (except at night, which we’re not likely to attempt).

How we did it, specifically

We’ve made the run from Yellowbanks a couple of times. We headed fairly far off coast on a southwesterly heading in search for some wind and perhaps a few dolphins and a whale or two. Fortunately, we encountered all of the above (including the largest and most active pod of Fin Whales any of us had previously seen). On our spring 2014 trip, we encountered transiting gray whales and a lonesome bull elephant seal in the anchorage. We had sailed far enough out so that when we tacked we were on a northwest heading that practically took us straight into Johnson’s Lee. Finding the right place to drop the hook required a little more poking around as the landmarks listed in Fagan are all gone. In addition, there is a fair amount of kelp to be avoided. While the anchorage is quite large, care must be taken to avoid anchoring at the base of the canyon where strong winds can at times come roaring through. At the same time, care should be taken so as to not to get too close to the northern shore where (according to Fagan) it is rocky and the holding is poor. We wove our way through a small kelp bed, and dropped the hook in approximately 35 feet of water, a half mile or so off shore, paying out about 200 feet of chain. The wind was blowing almost 30, but we were well sheltered from the swell that had been punishing us for two days. Note: If you have a mooring buoy on your chart, you’ve got an old chart. The buoy’s gone and the chart has been updated.

Going Ashore

Go to Santa Rosa Island for general information including history, topography, flora and fauna of Santa Rosa and an excellent slide show on the Channel Islands National Park website.


None that aren’t charted or visible. Updates: If you have new or amplifying information concerning this anchorage or the surrounding area, please contact Capt. Dan. His e-mail link is in the left sidebar.

See you on the water! 

Sail Channel Islands new website

Out with the old (big, clumsy, unwieldy) and in with a new website

It’s just a coincidence that we’re redoing our site in this, our decade celebration. We’ve keeping most of the information, but we’re separating the cruising guide and the navigation training information.

We welcome your comments on the new site. Obviously, I’m  a sailor, not a web developer, so there will be issues. If you can’t find something you need, particularly something that used to be here, please let me know.


Sail for just a few hours …. or several days